system might have averted disaster|
By Joe Bauman
Deseret Morning News
If the Philippine government had used landslide
prediction software like the freely distributed system called SINMAP
developed by Utah State University experts, maybe the village of
Guinsaugon would not have been devastated.
"It's hard to shut down schools and neighborhoods and
relocate them in different parts of the landscape," said Robert T. Pack, associate professor at USU and one of the program's developers. "But obviously, they would have been smart to
do it in this case."
Instead, around 1,000 or more were killed Feb. 17
when a gigantic mudslide slammed into the village on Leyte Island,
destroying the town and burying an elementary school.
Another way to prevent loss of life would be to use
the system to find vulnerable areas and prevent development there, he
SINMAP — which stands for Stability Index Mapping — is available free on the Internet.
Pack, a geological engineer, noted that he and David Tarboton, professor and hydrologist at USU,
have worked together for about eight years on the system. They started
on contract with the government of British Columbia, preparing
software methods and other tools "that would allow us to better predict
at a regional scale the likelihood of landslides occurring."
After two years of work, the SINMAP toolbox was
ready. "We applied it to a number of real-life areas up in western
Canada and got astoundingly good results," he said.
The program can study factors about the terrain and
predict what would happen "in cases of heavy rainfall or heavy
snowmelt." In vulnerable areas, precipitation can trigger landslide and
The mudflows have a "wet, concrete-like consistency."
They can roar through a creek "and then spit out the canyon mouth into
whatever's in the way," Pack said.
Many Utah areas have been hit by mudflows emerging
from canyons. In some cases he studied, homeowners did not realize
their houses are built on alluvial sand that swept out of canyons as
"We can use our tools and the data that's available .
. . and run these models against the typography and the shape and the
geomorphology of the canyon" and predict the likelihood of dangerous
slides and mudflows.
SINMAP examines the shape of a watershed or hillside
and calculates how it will concentrate water from rain or a snowmelt.
It shows "how it would flow into hollows or gullies
that would cause more saturation of the soil, and would make a
landslide more likely to occur," he said. "And, of course, the steeper
the slopes are, the more likely things are to
slide — up to a point."
That point is reached when slopes are so steep that they become rocky cliffs, which can be more stable.
"We posted it on the Web and made it available to the geological engineering community at large," Pack added. The site to download SINMAP is hydrology.neng.usu.edu/sinmap.
"It's now very popular worldwide. We have had this
model serve as the basis for studies" from the Himalayas to the Alps,
from the Andes to the South Pacific and across North America.
Does he regret that the system is available free and not making money for the developers?
"No, not at all," he said.
A purpose of a university is to disseminate useful
knowledge. Also, he said, a small amount of money comes in from "people
who are excited about it," allowing the developers to update the system.
"But we pretty much support it out of our own free time and keep it going."
Recently, they updated it to work with certain geographic information software.
Several students from other countries were so impressed with Pack's and Tarboton's expertise in the area that they came to USU to work with them and study the system.
"We have a lot of fun with it," Pack said.
However, he is saddened to learn about disasters, like the Guinsaugon mudslide, that might have been avoided.
People need to be aware of nature's potential for
harm. They need to ask the hard questions and put time into
"discovering how vulnerable villages like that are," he said.
In the Philippines, "big disasters, unfortunately, aren't uncommon."
said he would love it if the Philippine government "would commission a
study or two and use tools like we've developed, to get some insight
into the magnitude of the problems."
Additional caption: One-year-old Mardi Gador sleeps while her
grandfather, Luis Odtoham, keeps watch at a hospital in Anahawan,
Philippines, Saturday after fleeing recent mudslides. USU's free SINMAP system predicts slides.
Credit: Lucy Pemoni, Associated Press